Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The new topic/stress principle: Topic is concrete, stress abstract

Recall the sequence (concrete to abstract, near to far):

conversation – informal prose – formal prose – poetry

Formal prose is a style of writing that evolved—primarily to serve abstract matters, where clarity is the central virtue—to exploit the specific virtues of written discourse. It is far-mode clarity that is most prized in this style; near-mode is essential but subordinate. To subordinate near to far, formal prose uses a characteristic device at various structural levels: new matter is introduced in far mode and developed in near mode.

At the sentence level, this is accomplished by an application of topic/stress segmentation: the stress—which introduces important new information—is abstract; the topic—which recapitulates old information—is concrete.

Definitions and principles

In formal prose (which includes the most effective legal-brief writing), the topic (usually the sentence subject) announces what the sentence is about, often through association with previous information. The stress position (I’ll continue using the term despite the technical misnomer) refers to the last word or words before a period, colon, semicolon, and sometimes a dash; it contains important new information. (We know this about topic and stress mainly due to the work of Joseph Williams and George Gopen.)

Construal-level theory links concreteness to psychological proximity and abstractness to psychological distance. In sentence processing, the topic’s position is near and the stress’s position is far, and formal prose not only honors the topic and stress positions, their contents are typically concrete and abstract respectively, to correspond with their near and far locations in the sentence. New information is first presented abstractly in the stress position and then developed concretely by being recapitulated in a more specific form in the topics of subsequent sentences.

A counter-example?

The reader expects the topic to be concrete and the stress abstract, and each receives greatest emphasis when they satisfy the expectation. This observation answers a counterexample offered by Wayne Schiess, purporting to show that the topic is more important than the stress:
To me, number one emphasizes President Bush more. 
(1) President Bush made mistakes.
(2) Mistakes were made by President Bush.
Addressing Wayne’s argument fills a lacuna in topic/stress theory: what determines the stress-position’s size? Although “President Bush” constitutes a terminal phrase in number two, that phrase—referencing a near-mode concrete particular rather than a far-mode disposition—isn’t well suited to receive stress. The reader expands the stress position to encompass a suitable abstraction, which it finds in the sentence’s predicate, “were made,” which the sentence emphasizes.

(Generalizations like this new topic/stress principle are often best used to sharpen intuition rather than to replace it. I don’t think it would have occurred to me that number two emphasizes the predicate without its aid, but once I’ve applied the principle, the intuition perseveres.)

Rewriting the “writing rules”

The new topic/stress principle grounds, consolidates, and corrects several established “writing rules.”

Avoid nominalization is one-sided over-reaction; nominalization creates far-mode abstractions, commonly suitable in the stress but not, such as to supplement an excessively abstract verb, in the topic’s vicinity.

Favor agents as subjects is a simplistic rendition of formal-prose’s preference for concrete topics.

Concrete examples should precede new abstractions describes a practice in the (informal, near-mode) plain style, unsuited for formal prose.

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